The word on the street? Poet Paul Muldoon’s a rock lyricist too

Paul Muldoon
(Michael Potiker)

Consider, if you will, the superb song — one that couples melody, rhythm and lyric to create a burst of out-of-nowhere joy and in the process rewires the brain’s circuitry. It’s in work we know and love, transcending space and time with a resonance unique to popular music.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon has been pondering such glory since he first discovered rock ‘n’ roll as a youth in Northern Ireland and has published the results of his passion in the new “The Word on the Street,” his first book of rock lyrics after dozens of poetry collections. Dedicated to Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, Muldoon’s book features lyrics he’s written over the last decade, many of them set to music for an album of the same name by a loose gathering of Princeton, N.J., musicians called the Wayside Shrines.


“The Word on the Street” features the lyrics to 30 songs that tackle the varied tropes of the genre — including coitus, pills and rock ‘n’ roll. They range from the rollicking “Julius Caesar Was a People Person” to the would-be Garden State anthem “Jezebel Was a Jersey Belle.” Muldoon references movie stars and machine guns, Roman dictators and broken love. He captures the latter in “You Know It Won’t Ring True.” “Once my fake ID and your spray tan/Were all we had in our retirement plan,” he writes before expressing hope that his love will return to him: “There’s a chance you’ll reconsider/And go with the lowest bidder.”

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Muldoon, who teaches at Princeton University and is the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine, says he committed to the form in earnest after being invited by the late singer Warren Zevon to partner in a songwriting session. The two met in the purest of rock ‘n’ roll fashions: Muldoon wrote Zevon a fan letter, and the musician reached out to him.

“I went to school with him in a strange way, as a songwriter,” Muldoon says on the phone from that bastion of songwriting glory, New Jersey. “And as far as anyone learns anything at all about this activity, I learned something from him, I think. What I don’t know is immeasurable, and in fact, that’s one of the reasons one keeps on doing it, is to find out a bit more about it.” The product of that collaboration was “My Ride’s Here,” the title track to Zevon’s album released before his death in 2003.

Muldoon, who calls a standard pop song’s scaffolding “one of those miraculous structures,” compares the challenge and thrill of crafting a successful lyric to internalizing a perfect poem written in sonnet form. “In a strange way, one of the last things one thinks about is, ‘This is a sonnet.’ It’s a similar kind of thing. It’s endlessly open to invention.”

The poet, 61, cites a few musical pillars of his generation as inspiration. Bob Dylan is high on Muldoon’s list for his way around a character and his ability to vanish within his lyrical narratives. “I don’t think anyone ever really meets the same person twice in one of those songs. You never know who’s talking. That’s one of the most beautiful things about him — and actually one of the most beautiful things about the whole enterprise.” Muldoon adds that Dylan’s goal seems to be to craft new work that feels “written by many hands over many years, and yet by nobody.”

As he studied the form, Muldoon birthed songs of heartbreak such as “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” which blames a breakup in part on a certain charismatic actor: “As for the little creep/Who’s stuck in his oar/It’s that Johnny Depp/You once claimed to deplore.” On “Comeback,” he writes of the return-to-the-limelight yearning of a former superstar by name-checking Brian Eno, Don Was, Springsteen, Lars Ulrich and Daniel Lanois.

The poet says he’s attracted to the freedom afforded when building a typical set of lyrics. “Each song is a new event, and in a strange way, almost nothing that one brings from one situation and circumstance will stand you in good stead in the next. And yet sort of everything’s feeding into it, all of the music one’s listened to in one’s life, one’s sense of the structure of many popular songs. Whether one has intellectualized that, or if it’s just in your blood and in your bones, it’s all sort of coming together” in a song.

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As he learned, he was struck by many classic songs’ brevity and the ways in which they use that as an advantage. “I think my impulse was to keep on writing and writing and writing, and you realize that actually, the structure of so many of these songs is very basic, and they’re all of a short nature. They all run basically with three verses and three choruses attached to them, and a bridge maybe.”

Still, one of the thrills of a rock lyric is that it contains multitudes: Both the Trashmen’s gloriously dumb “Surfin’ Bird” and Dylan’s biting critique “Idiot Wind” are of a part, as are the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and PJ Harvey’s “The Words That Maketh Murder.” As musical events, these songs make permanent dents in the brain.

As performed by the Wayside Shrines, so do Muldoon’s works (he plays acoustic guitar). The group, more a hobby than a traveling enterprise, has released a full album, also called “The Word on the Street,” of Muldoon-penned tracks.

Experienced as songs, their meanings shift as words and music combine. For example, “Azerbaijan,” is a witty narrative about love by an Air Force base; set to guitars and a beat, the work soars in ways unimaginable when examined on the page: “It might take years to win your heart,” they sing, “To grab a beer/Would be a start.”

Over steady verses that compare a first date to a metaphorical journey to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the song ends as the relationship is falling apart and Morgan Chase is foreclosing on property: “Our flame burned clear/Took long to douse,” writes Muldoon, “But we’re moving on/To Godknowswhere/Azerbaijan is way up there.”

Motörhead it’s not, though it’s easy to imagine Simon taking a stab at such a song.


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